The crowd streamed into I-20 gallery last Saturday night for Sergei Bugaev's extraordinary installation on the Chechen war, featuring a 1996 film by Al Qaeda mercenaries of the rebels' Arab-led ambush of Russian armored personnel carriers.
An equal mix of exotic Russian visitors, beautiful Muslim women and the visual art world opening swarm gathered around the scholarly Bugaev (known to the world as "Afrika") and I-20 impresario Paul Judelson. What they saw was unprecedented in New York gallery history.
In 1996, Russian president Boris Yeltsin declared a ceasefire in Chechnya, on the heels of successful negotiations with Chechen leaders. The 50-minute movie, edited by the artist from three hours of caption film, begins with a pastoral scene of a dozen Russian armored carriers leaving Chechnya on a winding road.
You are with the Arab attackers in the underbrush -- from your perspective mortars destroy the lead and trailing vehicles, creating a traffic jam of sitting ducks.
Quickly, brutally, grotesquely, the small Al Qaeda band obliterates the entire column, ripped flesh burning on grim green armor. The Russians never had a chance.
As dawn arrives, you join the Al Qaedans in a revolting romp of bloodlust. Far from fleeing their ghoulish stew, the terrorists dance across the charred, ripped remains, pulling the scrotum and viscera of one poor soul and flaying them towards the sky. The one true Chechen in the band of blood recoils in revulsion.
As a result of this attack, Yeltsin cancelled the ceasefire and Russian troops returned to Chechnya. As a coda to the film, Afrika ads a heartrending 1995 black and white video of a Chechen funeral, with stark medieval close-ups of the dead and touching shots of the mourners.
Filling out I-20's cavernous galleries is Africa's extraordinary installation of tar, rabbit fur, military and religious relics, and ambiguous piping (possibly oil pipelines as well as mortars), permeating the gallery with a rank odor.
The totality brings us from ancient dinosaurs turning into oil to dead soldiers turning into sludge. The gallery becomes a cathedral of dread.
This is art of the highest order created from existence of the lowest order.
A must see.
CHARLIE FINCH is coauthor of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).